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Self-employment and cancer

You may be running your own company or work as a freelancer, contractor, farmer or entrepreneur. You may be working on your own or employ other people. A major concern when you are diagnosed with cancer may be how, and if, you can keep your business running.

Making a decision about working

Many self-employed people with cancer find ways to have treatment while keeping their business on track. Depending on the nature of your business, self-employment can give you more control over your work schedule. You may be able to work around treatment sessions and set aside the time needed for recovery.

The decisions you make will depend on your individual circumstances. The type of cancer, the proposed treatment and potential side effects are all factors to consider. If you rely on your income or if your business has been a major focus of your life, taking time off or permanently stopping work may be a major concern.

If you are uncertain about what to do, discuss your options with family or friends. You could also seek professional financial advice. Your options may include:

  • checking existing insurance policies for entitlements, including any benefits payable through your superannuation
  • claiming early entitlements from your superannuation fund (make sure to get financial advice about how this will affect your retirement)
  • talking to Centrelink about government benefits
  • selling or scaling back your business.

Managing your business

To keep your business running, you may need a business plan to manage the changes caused by treatment. Talk to your health care team about what to expect from treatment as this might help you decide what you can handle.

These suggestions may help you combine work and treatment:

  • Be realistic about how much work you can continue to do.
  • Decide what has to be done now and what can be left until later.
  • Use your energy to do the tasks that you enjoy the most or that you must do yourself.
  • Consider subcontracting, hiring temporary staff or asking friends in the same trade or profession to lend a hand.
  • Ask for or accept any offers of help from family and friends.
  • Consider working from home or changing your role.
  • Let any staff know what changes you are making to keep the business running.
  • Aim to finish any high-priority work before you start treatment.
  • Think about other ways to do your job. Could you travel less for work? Could you work from home more? Would it be practical to use technologies such as  smartphones and video calls instead of having face-to-face meetings? If you ship merchandise, could a fulfilment house handle this temporarily?
  • Check any existing insurance policies for entitlements and let your insurance company know about changes to your work situation.
  • Seek advice from any professional associations you belong to.
  • Cancer Council’s Legal, Financial and Workplace Referral Services may be able to help. Call 13 11 20 to find out what services are available in your area and  whether you are eligible for this assistance.

Telling clients about the cancer

You do not have to let your clients know you have cancer. Your instinct might be to hide the news of your diagnosis, but if you want to talk about it, you should decide who to tell and what to say. Let your clients know how your business will continue to meet ongoing commitments. Some people choose to tell only established clients.

Talking to your clients

  • Be direct and talk about what you know. For example, let them know your work hours and the best way to contact you. During treatment, you may want to suggest that clients email you to set up a time to talk.
  • Communicate your abilities and emphasise your strengths with statements such as, “My hours may change, but the project will be under control and completed on time.”
  • Try to maintain a professional relationship with your client. You may not want to share your fears and insecurities.
  • Think about alternative or flexible ways of working that could suit both your needs.
  • If you have physical side effects such as hair loss, you may want to postpone meetings in person. Use technology, such as email or conference calling, to stay
    in touch. If you have told the client about the cancer, you may feel comfortable with a face-to-face meeting.
  • Be prepared for a range of reactions if you tell a client about your health. Some people will be compassionate; others may be more aloof. Some clients may choose to work with someone else.
  • Consider subcontracting some work or referring clients to another business if you can’t meet their needs.

Telling employees about the cancer

You do not have to tell your employees that you have cancer. However, consider the impact on morale if you don’t tell them but they find out anyway. If you decide to let your employees know, you will need to consider what to tell them.

It is natural for your employees to be concerned about the impact of your diagnosis and treatment on their future. They may also be a source of support and come up with some options you hadn’t considered for managing any changes to the business caused by the cancer diagnosis.

Managing financial issues

For self-employed people who do not have paid leave, taking time off for cancer treatment may mean being without income for several weeks or months, which can be difficult.

Contact Cancer Council – Cancer Council may be able to organise financial advice or assistance. Call 13 11 20 to find out more information and if you are eligible.

Consult a financial or business adviser – They can help you assess your financial situation and come up with strategies to manage your finances. To find a business adviser in your area, see the Business website. You can find a financial adviser through the Financial Planning Association of Australia or the Association of Financial Advisers. You could also talk with your accountant.

Consult a financial counsellor – A financial counsellor can help if you are experiencing financial hardship. Visit the National Debt Helpline or call them on
1800 007 007 or the Rural Financial Counselling Service or call them on 1800 686 175 for free, confidential and independent financial counselling.

Look into claiming on other insurance policies – You may hold relevant policies, such as income protection insurance, trauma insurance or key person insurance.

Check your superannuation fund – Although self-employed people are not required by law to contribute to a superannuation fund, many people have retirement savings. Check if you have any insurance policies linked to the fund, such as disability benefits, as you may be eligible to make a claim.

Contact Centrelink – You may be eligible for benefits or pensions. There are different types of income support payments for people in financial hardship. Visit Centrelink or call them on 132 717. For information about the Farm Household Allowance, visit the website or call the Farmer Assistance Hotline on 132 316.

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed November 2019 by the following expert content reviewers: Kerryann White, Manager, People and Culture, Cancer Council SA; Nicola Martin, Principal, McCabe Curwood, NSW; Jane Auchettl, Coordinator, Education and Training Programs, Cancer Council Victoria; Craig Brewer, Consumer; Alana Cochrane, Human Resources Business Partner, Greater Bank Newcastle, NSW; Shona Gates, Senior Social Worker, North West Cancer Centre, North West Regional Hospital, TAS; Dianne Head, Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Metastatic Breast Cancer, Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre Westmead, NSW; Alex Kelly, Talent Acquisition Business Partner, Aon, NSW; Prof Bogda Koczwara AM, Senior Staff Specialist, Department of Medical Oncology, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Sharyn McGowan, Occupational Therapist, Bendigo Health, VIC; Jeanne Potts, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Michelle Smerdon, Legal and Financial Support Services Manager, Cancer Council NSW.

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